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Harvard's Affirmative Action Policy Goes On Trial


A controversial affirmative action case begins Monday in Boston, and activists on both sides of the issue were out protesting today.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Shouting) Stand up, fight back.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What do we do when diversity's under attack?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Shouting) Stand up, fight back.


MERAJI: The lawsuit alleges that Harvard University discriminates against Asian and Asian-American applicants. And here to tell us more is Carrie Jung. She's a reporter with member station WBUR in Boston.

Hey, Carrie.


MERAJI: All right. First, what are the arguments being made in the case?

JUNG: Well, Students for Fair Admissions, the group that filed this lawsuit, will be trying to prove essentially four things in this case. First, they say that Harvard illegally uses a quota system or racial balancing in admissions. They say that admissions rates for each demographic group are too similar from year to year. Second, the group is arguing that Harvard admissions is considering race too much, or that it's a deciding factor and not just a factor of a factor like affirmative action policy actually allows. The group also thinks that Harvard hasn't adequately explored admissions methods that don't use race. They say that you really can still get a diverse class by considering things like geography and socioeconomic status.

But, as you mentioned, the biggest allegation here is that Harvard is intentionally discriminating against Asian-Americans in this application process. And they'll be trying to prove this with a lot of statistical analysis, actually. But it basically boils down to an argument where they'll try to show that, while Asian-American applicants do have the highest academic qualifications or GPA and standardized test scores, things like that, that they consistently earn lower personal scores from the admissions department. And a personal score is a number that Harvard assigns applicants to rate things like personal essays, letters of recommendation and even the amount of personal hardship that someone faced.

MERAJI: But the person behind this lawsuit isn't Asian-American, right? His name is Edward Blum. Can you tell us more about him?

JUNG: That is true. Yes, Edward Blum is the president of Students for Fair Admissions, and that is the group that technically brought this lawsuit. And this isn't Edward Blum's first court case attacking affirmative action policies in higher education. He's also spearheaded the lawsuit behind Fisher v. the University of Texas, which he ultimately lost, as you remember, in the Supreme Court in 2016. Now, we did reach out to Blum for an interview before trial, but he declined. We did speak with someone who is close to him, Ilya Shapiro, who's a - he's a constitutional fellow at the Cato Institute. He explained Blum's perspective to me this way.


ILYA SHAPIRO: He has a vision of a society where race doesn't matter - where government treats us all the same regardless of skin color. I share that vision. Asian-American applicants and students are at the forefront because that's how you can most starkly illustrate the problems.

MERAJI: What does Harvard have to say?

JUNG: Well, Harvard is standing behind their admissions policies. And they say they don't have a quota, pointing to the fact that, in the last five years, they have admitted about 29 percent more Asian applicants. Harvard's legal team will also be presenting data that refutes the plaintiff's analysis over those lower personal scores. And WBUR spoke with Harvard's new president, Larry Bacow, over the summer about this lawsuit. And, while he couldn't comment on specifics, he did say that diversity is important to the school and that a lot of factors are considered in this admissions process.

MERAJI: Thanks, Carrie.

JUNG: Thank you.

MERAJI: Carrie Jung is the senior education reporter for member station WBUR in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie began reporting from New Mexico in 2011, following environmental news, education and Native American issues. She’s worked with NPR’s Morning Edition, PRI’s The World, National Native News, and The Takeaway.
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